Lecture Note: Eastward Movement of Buddhism in the Mid-1950s by Dr. Wako Kato, January 11, 2011

Nibei Japan Study Club Dr Wako Kao

Dr. Wako Kato at Japan Study Club (Cultural News Photo)

Nibei Foundation Japan Study Club, January 11, 7:30 PM – 8:30 PM

Dr. Wako Kato is Professor Emeritus of California State University Los Angeles and Professor Emeritus of  Nagoya University of Foreign Studies in Japan.

Dr. Kato was born in 1930 in the outskirts of Nagoya, Japan,  in a Zen temple.  This temple was only about 200 years old, which for a Buddhist temple is considered relatively new.  He graduated from Aichi Education University in 1951 and practiced Zen at two Zen monasteries to later become a priest at the Zen temple, Hosenji, In Nagoya. He was sent to San Francisco to serve at Sokoji temple by Soto Zen Administration in 1952.

In the mid-1950’s, when Rev. Kato was yet a young priest of Soto Zen Mission from Japan, he met Alan Watts, then a radio commentator and prolific writer of Zen and Eastern thoughts. Both met regularly at a Victorian mansion over-looking Marina district and Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Mr. Watts had asked Rev. Kato to read and translate Chinese and Japanese Zen classical texts.

Rev. Kato was therefore instrumental in the early phase of the spreading of Zen Buddhism in the United States through his association with Watts.

Dr. Kato earned a master degree in philosophy from the University of Pacific.  Later in 1960, he earned a PhD. in comparative religious studies from then a consortium program in conjunction with the University of Pacific and the University of California, Berkeley.

Due to his vast religious and academic background and his association with Mr. Alan Watts, he was able to promote the fundamentals of Zen Buddhism through his involvement with the “Eastward Movement of Buddhism” in the United States.

He has taught at the University of California, Berkeley before he moved to Southern California.

Dr. Kato has been and continues to be of great service to the Soto Zen Mission in the United States.

While he worked at Sokoji in San Francisco, he was appointed to become the abbot of Fuganji in Nara, Japan. In the past, a priest who occupied a Fuganji temple would be on a four-year resident rotation.  This practice had changed to hold his post for a lifetime. Dokuju means a single resident priest and Fugakuji became dokuju temple.

Dr. Kato later attended a celebration of the 600th anniversary at Nara Temple, Fugakuji, number of Noh actors and musicians participated. In that event all participants, even small children dressed in kimono costume.  Dr. Kato’s wife was so impressed by all this activity in heavy costume in such hot and humid weather.

Dr. Kato showed the audience his Zen ceremonial robes.  The whole attire consisted of tabi socks; two layers of kimono and a black robe from his master.  It is the Zen Buddhist practice that when a master feels his disciple follower to have adequately understood and to be able to practice the Zen correctly, that the disciple could then receive his master’s robes and the bowl. The bowl is symbolic “bowl” which Buddha Sakamuni held and begged food to sustain his body which is given to the disciple at this time.

Dr. Kato also showed some pictures of Buddha, Sakamuni, and his Great and Complete Nirvana (his death). It showed the Buddhist attire of India where Buddha had supposed to worn the robe where only his left shoulder is covered.

This was in contrast with today’s priest costume where both shoulders are now covered in “kimono” style and over it left shoulder covered a robe have worn.  The master gives his robe and bowl to acknowledge how his disciple has now become an independent Buddhist monk.  Dr. Kato received this honor when he was about fifteen years old, just before his master’s death in 1945.

He explained how the initial meaning of “ji” meant “lodge” or “inn” where the earliest Buddhist monk  stayed in an inn called the White Horse Inn, Hakubaji. After this “ji” means a Buddhist temple.

Dr. Kato also relayed the story of a Chinese monk who went to Bodhiharma, an Indian Zen monk who stayed in a cave in Shorinji who was meditating there. This man so pleaded and so wished to become his disciple that he said he would even cut off his arm to be become Bodhihama’s follower.  Bodhiharma finally relented to take him on as his disciple due to this man’s firm determination. Thus, Zen Buddhism in China began.

Dr. Kato told of the story of the birth of Buddhism.  Buddha was an Indian prince and one day he left his palace and saw the human suffering of the world.  He was so moved by this misery of human life. He then was eager to find how to eradicate human misery. He left his princely life to find the true meaning of life and how to cope with miseries in life.

He went to through many ascetic practices including fasting to almost the point of death. One day a woman named Sujata offered a pot of milk to Gautama which he drank.  He then meditated and by early dawn suddenly found enlightenment and became Buddha.

He founded his belief on the “middle way” which holds that all extremes must be avoided; the “middle” way is the ideal.  Also, he came to believe and profess that all human beings come into this world and must suffer to some degree and that no one is ever fully content with his own situation or predicament in life.

Life will always have some pain, regardless of who or what we are.  Therefore, one’s salvation must come from “within” and not from any exterior means.  Buddha said that “life is suffering” and so there must be some cause of this suffering; possibly rooted in one’s own self-consciousness.

The individual’s notion of his self is the cause of this suffering and discontentment.  Therefore, one should try to eliminate this self-notion.  To be “one” with all things on earth should be the goal; by so doing, true awareness of self in relation to entirety of this universe can be reached.

To live in the moment is paramount.  Time is constantly moving and we are just “flowing” in this time continuum.  As life goes on, likes and dislikes will emerge but in the life in one instant has no interval to for any discrimination.  We, as humans, should strive to not discriminate based on his self wishes and do not separate the past, present and future; we should strive to be totally non-discriminative.

Dr. Kato also showed some pictures from a San Francisco’s Japan Town procession, in the occasion of  Rev. Shunryu Suzuki’s official confirmation as the resident priest of Sokoji which took place in 1959 where there were young girls in kimono taking part in the celebration among others.

Dr. Kato spoke of his close connection and admiration of Mr. Alan Watts who in 1957 published the book “The Way of Zen.”  Many hours were spent in discussing the notes on the Tang and Sung Classic Zen texts that Dr. Kato had prepared for Mr. Watts.

Mr. Watts also wrote Tao:  The Watercourse Way in collaboration with A Chung-LiangHuang.  Mr. Watts also read the works of  D. T. Suzuki, though D. T. Suzuki was not that popular at that time yet.  So Mr. Watts also help popularize Suzuki’s ideas and principles of Zen Buddhism.

Dr. Kato spoke of the Eastern Movement of Buddhism in the 1950s. “Eastward Movement of Buddhism” is the phrase among Buddhists which originally started in India to China, Korea and to Japan, and now from Japan to the United States. “Eastward Movement” finally crossed the Pacific Ocean and rooted in the United States.

A Question and Answer session followed this most interesting lecture.

Question: Can a master have one or more apprentices?

Answer: There is no limit to the number of apprentices that a master may take on.

Question: How are major decisions in Zen Buddhism made as to temples and practices?

Answer: There is a Zen Buddhist Headquarters in Tokyo which is the chief administrative unit for Zen temples and priests.  This office regulates the Zen Buddhist monks and orchestrates the ranks and priests seven or eight steps of training.

Question: How did Buddhism start in India?

Answer:  The Indian prince, Gautama Siddhatha left his princely life to find how to eradicate human suffering and attain peace of mind. People were impressed with the Buddha taught and naturally followers practiced the Buddha’s Way. That started Buddhism in India.

The audience gained much information and insight on how Zen Buddhism spread n the US and the greater world.

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